There are good reasons dogs are known as man’s best friend. For millennia, they have provided faithful companionship and assistance. And there’s plenty of evidence they help our health, too.

A Loyola University study found that adults recovering from total joint replacement surgery who received pet therapy – a pet visit and “cuddle time” – required 50 percent less pain medication than those who didn’t. Another study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that dog owners walked nearly twice as much – 300 minutes per week – as those without dogs.

But dogs aren’t the only animals that can improve human health. Studies show that just stroking a cat or watching fish swim can slash stress levels, and that owning a pet may be linked to longer life.

For some truly remarkable examples of the healing power of pets, meet three people whose pets transformed their lives.

Nancy Laracy & Her Bunny

When people say, “My pet saved my life,” they usually mean it figuratively. But Nancy Laracy’s pet rabbit may have saved her life literally.

For nine years, Bunnyboy gave her comfort and distraction from the pain of fibromyalgia and mixed connective tissue disease, an autoimmune disorder.

She carried Bunnyboy everywhere – snug against her chest on a burp cloth. And when Nancy felt ill, he curled up beside her. He became the third child that Nancy, who has two children, had longed for.

In 2008, Nancy developed an abscess deep in her jawbone. On one hand, she had to laugh; Bunnyboy also had a chronic condition that caused abscesses, including in his jaw. 

But her condition was serious, just as Bunnyboy’s had been. If not properly treated, abscesses can lead to life-threatening infections – and Nancy’s immune system was already compromised because of the biologic drug she was on.

The recommended treatment stunned her: surgery to implant antibiotic beads deep in her jaw – the same treatment researchers had pioneered on Bunnyboy four years earlier. It proved successful, and Nancy owes Bunnyboy in part for that.

That’s not the only time he came to her rescue. Once, home alone, Nancy woke up drenched in sweat and practically paralyzed from a severe flare. “There was a phone on the bed but I couldn’t reach it. I told Bunny-boy, ‘Mommy needs help!’ and he nudged the receiver to me so I could call a friend,” she says.

Bunnyboy died in 2009. In 2011, Nancy got a new rabbit, Muffin, to share love and comfort.

“People with chronic pain are sometimes afraid of the extra work involved with having a pet, but the love they give you in return is unconditional and gives you the motivation to care for them,” says Nancy.

Plus, she says, “Giving love and receiving love can help you triumph over anything, including chronic pain and illness.”

Jaci Sweet & Her Shepherds

Jaci Sweet was born with congenital abnormalities in her hips and knees, and has Ménière’s disease (an inner-ear disorder that affects balance and hearing),rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Walking, especially up and down stairs, has always been difficult for the 47-year-old nurse, who lives in Spanaway, Wash. But giving up never came easily either.

“I’m one of those people that if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do anything I can to prove you wrong,” Jaci says.

In 1997, Jaci was forced to make a tough decision about her nursing job. “It was either the job or my health, so I had to give up the nursing,” she says. But with assistance dogs, daily tasks like grocery shopping or doing laundry are not so difficult, and they help her remain independent.

She got her first assistance dog while finishing nursing school in 1996. “One of my patients was terminally ill and had a German shepherd assistance dog named Wolf. He wanted his dog to go to a good home after his death, and he asked if I would adopt Wolf.”